CINQUE TERRE, Italy – From the cheerful soft yellows, pinks, and oranges of the villas that dot the cliffs of the five villages of Cinque Terre to the perfectly still aqua seawater that lies beneath them, the views of the coastline of this portion of the Italian Riviera are some of the most inspiring and breathtaking in the country of Italy, and arguably the world.
Though it’s entirely possible to appreciate this beautiful place from a boat or train, the most spectacular views can only be obtained with a little bit—okay, a lotta bit—of extra effort. The extra labor is in the form of a 3.5 km hike from the towns of Vernazza to Monterosso. Cinque Terre, the home of five small villages, translates to “Five Hills” in English; however in reality these were more like mountains. But the best experiences in life wouldn’t be as wonderful if you didn’t have to fight for them, right?
We fought, and we won. The hike from Vernazza to Monterosso was steep, narrow, and in some places, downright dangerous. The two-way path was at most two-feet wide, twisting and winding up and around the sides of the mountain on the edge of the Liguaran Sea. In some places the path was dirt and in others it was steep rocky stairs, but in all places, it was difficult—especially if the only exercise you have had in the past two weeks is walking to and from the gelato shop.
The hiking time is approximately 1.5 hours if you continuously climb without any breaks, but it would be silly not to break occasionally to take in the views of the sea and the mountainside. We reached the end of the path—the beach—in about two hours. By that time our water bottles had long been emptied and our stomachs were growling for food. Luckily, the region in which Cinque Terre lies is home to the freshest and best seafood and pesto in the world.
My tired body fought over what it wanted. My legs ached for a chair, my stomach for food, and my mind for a strong margarita. I made it down the strip, past big-lettered tourist traps, rocky beaches, and overpriced mixed drink stands to a sky- blue sign with white lettering that read “Cantina.” The restaurant looked promising. My stomach was winning the battle.
The restaurant was indeed the oasis we hoped it would be. A shaded two-person table welcomed us to sit and enjoy an aperitivo of fried focaccia bread paired with three delicious herb and olive-based dips. The first was the region’s famous pesto, fresh and almost sweet with a strong basil taste. The second was an olive paste, made with a mix of black and green olives, crushed into a smooth dip perfect for spreading on bread. The third was an olive oil, but not traditional pure oil that Italy is known for producing. It had a buttery taste, and was thicker and more yellow in color instead of green. All three were delicious. We ran out of dip much sooner than we ran out of bread.
Next came the calamari. A giant plate filled with fresh-out-of-the-sea and hot-out-of-the-fryer squid, spritzed in lemon and served co-mingled with zucchini. It looked and smelled appetizing to my rumbling stomach. It was coated in a thin layer of breading, salted and flavorful without any greasy residue that you might find in a Midwest preparation of the same meal. You could sum it up in one word: satisfying.
The strenuous hike led to many beautiful views and one heck of a traditional meal on the Italian Riviera. But even if the best pesto in the world and seafood is found thousands of miles away from home, it’s always possible to create your very own basil masterpiece. The Cinque Terre website (www.cinqueterre-travel.com/gastronomy/pesto/)offers a quick and easy six ingredient recipe.
So remember, if the hills look a little too steep to climb or the path looks too narrow to share, overcoming those obstacles will lead you to a view like this and a plate full of your dreams.